Fruit Flies in a Bottle
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
September 8, 2010
“Men at some time are
masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in
our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.”
Place a few fruit flies in a bottle
with a layer of honey at the bottom, and they will quickly multiply to
an enormous number, and then, just as quickly, die off to the very last,
poisoned by their wastes. Similarly, add a few yeast cells to grape
juice, seal the bottle, and the cells will consume the sugar and turn it
into alcohol. When the alcohol rises to 12.5% it will kill off all the
yeast, and the wine will be ready for the table.
Fruit flies and
yeast in a bottle are embarked upon suicidal endeavors. They can’t help
it. They don’t know any better, lacking the cognitive equipment to
“know” anything at all.
Human beings, we are told, are different.
Humans can utilize their accumulated knowledge, evaluate evidence and
apply reason, and with these skills and accomplishments they can imagine
alternative futures and choose among them to their advantage.
Human beings have these capacities. But history teaches us that all too
often, human beings simply refuse to apply them and, like the mindless
fruit flies, march blindly into oblivion. For example:
None of the antagonists in the
First World War wanted the war. It was touched off by the
assassination of an Austrian Duke in the Balkans. And when it was
all over four years later and sixteen million had died, one German
politician asked another, “How did it all happen?” The second
replied, “Ach, if we only knew!” (Tuchman)
When the Nazi pogrom against the
Jews accelerated, a few wise Jews fled Germany, leaving friends,
professions and all their possessions behind. The others, reflecting
that “This can’t be all that bad, after all, I am a loyal German,”
remained. When in January 1942 “the final solution” was decided at
the Wansee conference, it was too late.
Industrialized fishing techniques
have drastically reduced both the quality and quantity of the
world-wide catch. As Elizabeth Kolbert reports in
The New Yorker, “In the late nineteen eighties, the total
world catch topped out at about eighty-five million tons... For the
past two decades, the global catch has been steadily declining ...
by around five hundred thousand tons a year.” This is a paradigm
example of Garrett Hardin’s
“Tragedy of the Commons,” whereby “ruin is the destination
toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest...”
[link] While a global agreement to limit fishing might restore the
take to sustainable levels, there are ominous indications that, in
addition to over-fishing, climate change might be significantly
responsible for these reductions. (More about this below).
Finally, consider Easter Island. When
Polynesian explorers discovered and colonized Easter Island at about 900
AD, they arrived at an island that was fully forested, with huge trees
that supplied essential resources for canoes, houses, food, fuel, ropes
and textiles. With these resources, the islanders built more than
eight-hundred stone statues (moai) for which Easter Island is famous.
When the first Europeans arrived in 1722, they found a barren island
totally devoid of trees. The peak population of this sixty-six square
mile island is estimated to have been as much as thirty thousand. In
1872, only one hundred and eleven native islanders remained. (Diamond).
Could the Easter Islanders foresee the consequences of the destruction
of their forests? If not, then why not? If so, why did they not act to
protect this essential resource before it was too late?
book, Collapse, Jared Diamond poses these questions in words that
strike ominously close to home:
I have often asked myself, “what
did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was
doing it? Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or:
“Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute
for wood”? Or “We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere
else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is
premature and driven by fear-mongering”?
When we look back in time, we find
numerous examples such as these of a collective failure of societies to
anticipate and deal with oncoming emergencies. With 20/20 hindsight, we
look back and wonder: How could they not have seen what was in store for
Thus it is fair to ask, how acute is our foresight today?
What are we doing, or failing to do, that might prompt future
generations to ask the same question of us: How could they not have seen
what was in store for them?
The answer, I submit, is most
discouraging. Our political and corporate leaders have eyes, but will
not see. They have minds, but will not think, much less anticipate the
catastrophes before us and take appropriate action to avoid them.
Regarding the domestic and global
economy, our leaders are steadfastly ignoring
Herbert Stein’s law: "That which can not go on forever, won’t.”
Wealth continues to “percolate up” from the producers of wealth to
the owners of that wealth. Today, one third of the U.S. national
wealth is owned by
one-percent of the population. The average Standard and
Poors 500 CEO earns in half a day, more than his company’s median
worker earns in an entire year. When, if ever, does this trend end?
More in an hour? In a minute? Meanwhile, the super-rich pay a
smaller fraction of their income in taxes than the average citizen –
taxes that pay for the infrastructure, the courts, and the education
of the workers upon which their wealth depends. Ever upward climbs
the national debt. The Republican “solution” to the economic crisis?
More of the same policies that precipitated the crash of August,
The solution to the federal budget
deficit? Screw the little guy by cutting back on Social Security,
Medicare, health reform and education. But don’t even think of
raising taxes on the super-rich. How long will the bottom 99 percent
of us tolerate this injustice until, at last, we band together and
storm the Bastille?
More than half of the federal
budget goes to wars, past, present and projected, and to the
maintenance of the American global empire –
hundred military bases in at least 130 foreign countries.
The military-industrial complex builds submarines and aircraft
carriers to fight an enemy without a navy, and jet aircraft to fight
an enemy without an air force. The U.S. military budget is roughly
equal to the total of all other military budgets in the world. Yet
scarcely any politician dares suggest a cut in the so-called
“defense” budget which, with its enormous waste, fraud and abuse, is
arguably a greater threat to our “national defense” than any
“enemies,” real or imagined. How about using some of that cash for
R&D in clean energy? Or for the education of the next generation of
scientists and engineers? Or in the repair of our collapsing
physical infrastructure? All of these are clearly matters of
“national defense.” Will our leaders recognize this and act
appropriately? Given the current political/economic/media
environment, not a chance.
Modern industrial society runs on
oil. There can be no doubt about that. In a very real sense,
citizens in industrial societies “eat oil.” Petroleum products
produce fertilizers and pesticides, run farm equipment, and
distribute food to the cities. In the United States, about two
percent of the population is directly involved in food production:
one agricultural worker feeds fifty American citizens, and many more
individuals abroad. And yet,
Kenneth Watt estimates that nineteenth century pre-petroleum
agricultural methods could support a global population of from one
to four billion people. “Mankind,” writes Watt, is thus “embarked on
an absolutely immense gamble” that somehow, when the oil runs out,
another energy source will be available. When that happens,
the world population, now approaching seven billion, might well
exceed ten billion.
No one will contend that the supply of
unrecovered petroleum is infinite. The controversy centers on
various estimates of the remaining reserves. Oil extraction is
becoming ever-more expensive, and the last drop of oil will be
recovered at about the time that more energy is required to extract
it than is contained in the oil itself. Some experts claim that
“peak oil,” the time of maximum oil production, is now upon us.
So what happens if and when the oil finally runs out? If
alternate energy sources are not in place and in full operation,
wars and mass starvation are certain to follow. Current efforts to
avoid this catastrophe are feeble, too little and too late. The
international oil conglomerates that effectively own the congress of
the United States are not inclined to encourage the promotion of
Ninety-seven percent of all active
climate scientists agree that
global warming is real, and that human activity is the primary
cause. This consensus is challenged by an array of
scientifically uninformed politicians, media celebrities and
corporate lackeys, joined by the usual “biostitutes” (Robert Kennedy
Jr.’s term) – scientists for hire, ever prepared to conjure up bogus
“evidence” to support their sponsors’ corporate agendas.
climate denier’s efforts and investments have been effective, as
surveys indicate that fewer citizens are concerned about global
warming and more citizens are inclined to be skeptical about it.
Meanwhile, the global atmosphere is proving itself to be totally
indifferent to public opinion and political inaction as it continues
to heat up, causing widespread wildfires in Russia, floods in
Pakistan and Iowa, drought in the American southwest, the shrinking
of the Greenland icecap, rising sea level, with still more horrors
in store in the future.
Oberlin College ecologist David Orr is unconstrained in his rage
over the political and corporate resistance to informed and
effective responses to climate change:
"We really don't have a name
to describe behavior of this sort... It is criminality beyond
any language, concepts or laws that we presently have. It's
criminality that places the entire human enterprise at risk. And
we simply have not been able to confront inaction that allows
the entire human enterprise to slip into catastrophic failure.
It really does beggar the imagination to understand why, given
the consensus of the scientific community on this issue, ...
inaction was the order of the day."
And finally, a little-noticed news
report that should scare the bejesus out of all of us:
Canadian scientists have discovered that the population of oceanic
phytoplankton has dropped by 40 percent since 1950 and continues to drop
at a rate of about one percent per year. This fact just might foretell a
catastrophe even greater than global warming which, as it happens, may
be the primary cause of this phenomenon.
Why should we care about
the fate of these microscopic plants? Because phytoplankton are the
foundation of the oceanic ecosystem – the base of the food pyramid that
sustains all marine life. No phytoplankton, no fish, and the seas become
And that’s not even the worst of it.
Phytoplankton produce half of the world’s atmospheric oxygen and absorb
that carbon-dioxide that we are spewing into the air in dangerous
super-abundance. This raises a question that I’ve neither read about or
heard: is it just possible that the loss of phytoplankton might
suffocate us all? Without oxygen, we all die. Plain and simple. Where’s
the outrage? Where’s the alarm? Are there any proposals to reverse this
trend? And if we suppose that we can survive without the oxygen supplied
by the phytoplankton, then pray tell us how this is possible.
Perhaps the Canadian scientists are mistaken. If so, then a threatened
humanity pleads with the dissenting scientists to present their evidence
and deliver their refutation. However this investigation might proceed,
one fact remains unassailable: our fate is inexorably bound with that of
Are we, like the fruit flies in the
bottle, predestined to meet a horrible fate due to forces beyond our
control – beyond our control because we cannot overcome the blind
economic interests which dominate our political processes and which own
the mass media that misinforms the public?
I am sadly inclined to
believe that this is the case. But I am not entirely convinced, for
history also provides examples of how, facing pending emergencies,
societies and nations can act responsibly.
On December 6, 1941, a majority of
the American public was pacifist, demanding that we stay out of
“those foreign wars.” Two days later, that same public was in solid
support of President Roosevelt’s declaration of war. And the United
States military, at that time one of the weakest in the world
became, within months of total mobilization, the strongest.
When in 1974, physicists Sherwood
Rowland and Mario Molina published a paper in the scientific journal
Nature, linking the erosion of the atmospheric ozone to the
artificial chemical compounds, chlorofluorocarbons, the chemical
industry responded with an all-out public relations campaign to
debunk them. Eventually, the international scientific consensus
prevailed resulting in the Montreal Protocol of 1989, banning the
production and release of these substances. In 1995, Molina, along
with Paul Crutzen, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this
In 1964, U.S. Surgeon General
Luther Terry released a comprehensive government report linking
cigarette smoking to lung cancer. The tobacco industry replied with
volley of quasi-scientific rebuttals. Now the good news:
after relentless effort by medical and public interest groups,
brutal truth has broken through the tobacco industries’ PR
campaigns. In 1965, 42% of American adults were cigarette smokers.
In 2005, less than half that number of Americans were smokers.
"You can't keep an empire abroad
and a republic at home," wrote Mark Twain. Chalmers Johnson agrees:
vs. Democracy...” Faced with this choice sixty years ago,
Great Britain chose democracy. It remains to be seen how the United
States will choose. At the moment, the indications are not favorable
Japan, with one of the highest
population densities in the world, has managed to keep 74% of its
land mass forested – the highest percentage of all first-world
While the fossil fuel public
relations behemoth continues to convince the American public and
politicians that renewable energy sources are “impractical” and “too
expensive,” foreign countries such as Denmark, Iceland, Germany and
China forge ahead with their research, development and installation
of alternative energy. True, electricity from the sun costs more
than energy from coal. But as R&D progresses, those costs are
plunging while fossil fuel costs are rising. The cost curves are
certain to cross in the near future, at which time coal-generated
electricity will become obsolete. In fact, when such “externalities”
as health and environmental effects are factored in, fossil fuel
energy today is vastly more expensive than wind and solar energy.
Europe and China’s message to American industry: lead, follow, or
get out of the way. But we are not waiting for your reply!
Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse,
is a monumental study of how societies from around the world – in Easter
Island, in Pre-Columbian Central and North American, in Greenland – are
demolished by the heedless destruction of the sustaining environment.
And yet, in the final page of this book, Diamond closes on a hopeful
note: “we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant
peoples and past peoples. That’s an opportunity that no past society
enjoyed to such a degree.”
It remains to be seen if we seize
upon this opportunity.
A few corporate public relations
geniuses with limitless budgets have convinced large portions of the
American public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and
was in league with al Qaeda, that their president was foreign-born and
is a practicing Muslim, and that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by
a vast conspiracy of climate scientists with motives still unknown. Now
these same geniuses have taken on the task of convincing us that the
solutions to our energy, economic and environmental problems are to
continue the policies that created these crises in the first place.
This, of course, is the clinical definition of insanity. And so, to
borrow Albert Einstein’s reflection upon the atomic bomb, everything
“has changed .. save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward
The immediate result of a policy of
“more of the same” will be a securing of the vast wealth and political
power of those who have benefited from this policy. As for the remaining
99% of us in the disappearing middle class and the growing serf class,
we’re on our own. No doubt, in the calamities that follow, the
oligarches and kleptocrats of tomorrow will eventually be consumed as
To prevent which, here are a few stragegies of survival:
When you find yourself in a hole,
stop digging. If you are heading straight for a cliff, stop and
“For a successful technology,
reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature
cannot be fooled." (Richard Feynman)
means of discovering and validating truth is science.
Propaganda, skillfully and ruthlessly practiced, can deceive an
entire nation. But it can not abolish fundamental physical laws.
“Facts,” said John Adams, “are stubborn things.”
“In the conditions of modern life,
the rule is absolute: [the nation] that does not value trained
intelligence is doomed.” (Alfred North Whitehead). A nation that
dismantles its public schools, impoverishes its universities, and
makes advanced education unattainable to its brightest young people,
is a nation engaged in collective suicide. “ “If a nation expects to
be ignorant and free, ... it expects what never was and never will
be.” (Thomas Jefferson).
Promote the common good. There are
public interests and social benefits distinct from the summation of
all private interests. Ayn Rand was profoundly and dangerously
mistaken when she proclaimed that “there is no such entity as ‘the
public,’ the public is merely a number of individuals. On the
that which is good for each, may not be good for all.
United we stand, divided we fall.
No civilized society has existed
without a rule of law and sanctions to enforce the law, which is to
say, no society has existed without a government. The choice, then,
is not between government or no government, but between worse or
better government – between government of, by, and for the
privileged few, or government of, by and for the people. “To secure
these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
The ballot is the beating heart of
democracy. The citizens’ ballot must be secret, but not the method
of counting it. Neither should the counting and compiling of votes
be in the hands of private companies with partisan affiliations. An
unverifiable vote is an invalid vote.
abundant evidence that recent elections in the United States
have been fraudulent, yet the politicians have refused to
investigate and the media has refused to report this evidence.
In a free society access to public
office, legislation, and judicial decisions can not be bought and
sold. “Privatized popular government” is an oxymoron. When
privatization of government and an unrestricted market obtain, the
inevitable result is oligarchy and despotism. The remedy was clearly
enunciated by the founders of our republic when they declared our
independence: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing
invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce [the people]
under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to
throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their
The task before us is momentous, and
the outcome is uncertain. Quite frankly, I am inclined to agree with the
pessimists that humanity is about to enter into dreadful and prolonged
There is no greater task before us than to dedicate
ourselves to proving pessimists such as myself to be ultimately wrong.
As the great Andrei Sakharov reflected: [link heroes]
“There is a need to create ideals
even when you can’t see any route by which to achieve them, because
if there are no ideals then there can be no hope and then one would
be completely in the dark, in a hopeless blind alley.”
Copyright 2010 by Ernest Partridge
PostScript: Last month, with the death
of Stephen Schneider, climate science lost one of its most eloquent and
informed spokesmen. And I lost a personal friend. (For
more, see my "Farewell to a Friend: Stephen Schneider.")
Collapse, Viking, 2005.
Kolbert, Elizabeth: “The Scales
Fall,” The New Yorker, August 2, 2010.
Guns of August. Random House, 1962
Watt, Kenneth E. F.:
"Whole Earth," Earth Day, The Beginning, Arno Press, 1970, pp
Ernest Partridge's Internet Publications
Conscience of a Progressive: A
book in progress.
Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant,
writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public
Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in
Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website,
"The Online Gadfly" and co-edits
the progressive website, "The
Crisis Papers". Send E-Mail to: